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Fear of Every Geology Prof…

…is death on a class trip.  Going to places with unstable footing and exposure is often part of seeing geology that clarifies understanding, but it carries real risks. For GG, the most terrifying site is Toroweap Point in Grand Canyon National Park where, every time he visits, he breathes a sign of relief when the same number of students pile back into vehicles that had piled out of them. That site has 3000′ of vertical cliff to punish the unwary, but it doesn’t take that much for a fatality, as an environmental studies class from Briar Cliff University found out when they lost a classmate to a 100′ fall.

While family and friends grieve, another discussion is probably going on, if not now then soon. Should the school curtail field expeditions? Given the growing number of deaths by selfie, what is the role (and responsibility) of the instructor who takes students to places with hazards? Should the school dictate what is and is not an acceptable risk? Should students sign waivers, and if so, are they really enforceable?

Geoscience education benefits immensely from seeing what you are studying in the field. And the greatest hazard in field trips is generally the drive to the field or working on roadcuts near highways. But the drama of a fatal fall is more damning in some ways.  GG hopes that future students will get to experience the field safely, hopefully mainly by recognizing and avoiding hazardous situations on their own and with the guidance of an instructor rather than by being blocked from accessing important or memorable sites by fearful administrators.

A Fortnight In A Day

We are all such creatures of the indoors that there are some simple and obvious things about the sky above us that we don’t really get. Most Americans would not know the phase of the Moon unless they were looking at it, and a lot of folks don’t realize you can see the moon in daylight just fine (let alone Venus, under the right conditions). GG likes poking around in such little oddities as the offset from the earliest sunset to the shortest day. Here’s another one: you can kind of see the whole year of sunshine play out in a month of watching the Moon.

If you look for the Moon at moonrise on successive days, you will notice it moves around. A lot. As the Moon is pretty close to the ecliptic, you are in fact seeing the same motion that sunrise makes over the course of a year, though the phase varies with the season. Right now (Nov. 25th) the Moon rose nearly at the same place the Sun will rise on the summer solstice–the longest day of the year. In a couple of weeks, it will rise near the place the sun will rise a few days later, on the winter solstice. Of course, you might not notice that as it will only be a narrow waxing crescent just two days after being new.

How long can you see the Moon on a given day? Most people might think 12 hours (maybe even less). If you recognize that the lunar month means that the Moon has to make a circuit of the sky in about 28 days, you might guess 12 and a half hours–and on average you’d be close (if you guessed 11.5 hours, you just had the Moon in a retrograde orbit). But here is the difference between moonrise and moonset for Denver this November:


The average is a bit less than 12 1/2 hours (about 12:24 here), but you can see that some days you can see the Moon a long time, and other days you don’t see it for long at all.  Near the winter solstice (either hemisphere), the full moon is high in the sky a long time (full moon above is on the 22nd)–just like the Sun near the summer solstice. But in the summer, the full moon is low in the sky and not up nearly as long.

This can drive photographers batty. First, the Moon will rise in a different spot nearly every night–the exceptions are when it is near the northernmost or southernmost positions. The second is that the timing of moonrise will vary–and not just by that 48 minute average difference between a full lunar “day” and a solar day. When the lunar day lengthens the most, the moonrise will come only about 30 minutes later each night–around the 18th day in the plot above. And then when the lunar day shortens the most, as near day 3 above, it will take over an hour. These extremes are when the north-south position of moonrise changes the most.

All this is because the Moon traverses the ecliptic in just under a month while the Sun takes a whole year on the same journey. One night for the Moon is 12 days for the Sun. So when it seem like it will take forever to get through winter, go look for the moonrise and see it change day to day. It might help the long winter nights pass more quickly…

One has to wonder how often archeologists look for lunar alignments in ancient constructions.  There is often considerable attention paid to solar alignments, and for good reason, but don’t you think that sometimes ancient peoples might have marked lunar positions as well?

Parks: Love Them and Leave Them?

Well, another story about the national parks breaking down. Another story lamenting that “tourists are loving nature to death,” as the headline puts it. The article (published in multiple papers) documents a stream of thoughtless tourist actions, from literally leaving their shit on the ground to engaging in fistfights over parking spots. As such stories are wont to do, this one reminds us of the estimated $11B backlog in upkeep in the parks.

While nearly none of this is new, this article does tab a couple of new culprits. One is Snapchat and Instagram, where people now can find from geotags where scenic spots are and trek to them. Another, related, problem is the selfie, which has led to deaths and injuries as people scramble closer to cliff edges or wildlife.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that, once again, the reporters missed (ahem) the forest for the trees. The tone of the reporting repeats the mantra, too many people.  But a graph in the piece reveals that this is misleading: in 1987, 287 million visited the 305 units in the national park system. This capped a near exponential rise in visitation the previous 3 or 4 decades. That number was only exceeded in 2014, 27 years later and after 65 new units were added to the park system. The article talks about how challenging traffic is in Estes Park.  GG drives through there lots virtually every year in the past 25 years, and frankly, it has always been bad. Although there is no doubt that the starvation diet that the Park Service has been on for about 50 years has led to decay of services and facilities, the reality is that most of the current problems are not simply numbers. So what might be behind the concerns voiced in the article?

Read More…


Not what you think.  GG was hiking recently on a 15 mile loop in the mountains west of Boulder when, seven miles from the trailhead, he encountered a fellow walking with his dog.  As he passed, he stopped and asked, “is this the way to the loop?” “Um, what loop do you mean?” “The one back to Fourth of July.” “There is no loop to Fourth of July.”

This fellow apparently was told in about the vaguest possible terms that there was a loop hike from the Fourth of July trailhead.  The loop probably was the one GG was hiking that day, but that loop was out of Hessie.  Had the fellow not stopped (and had GG not wanted to know what loop he was talking about), his fate might have been dire. He had no map and didn’t seem to have much if anything in the way of gear to survive a night in the wild.

Were this a one-off, GG would chalk it up to random chance.  But he has encountered numerous folks wandering those trails with no idea where they were, where they were headed, or how to find their way out. Such nimrods occasionally have to be officially rescued, like the pair with a dog on Shoshoni Peak recently. Wearing tank tops and shorts, they were fortunate to have a sat phone, but when asked what happened, the men said they got on the wrong trail. Which might be understandable were there, in fact, a trail to Shoshoni Peak. (There is a route that somebody put into OpenStreetMaps using the same markings as a trail, but there is not and has not been a real trail). Other similar stories are common enough that only the most local papers ever relate them (and those usually have to be sufficiently unusual to merit even the smallest interest from the media).

GG frankly cannot recall in years past such widespread disregard for knowing where you were and where you were going and having the tools to confirm that you were on the right path.  Long ago there was a decent excuse for getting lost–finding a place selling the appropriate topographic maps, knowing how to read them, having a compass and knowing how to use it were all significant barriers.  But now there are dozens of phone apps that can offload maps for use away from cell towers and use GPS to plot you on those maps. Or buy a preloaded handheld GPS with all the maps you need. Even paper maps are more common than in years gone by and are often more user friendly than older topographic quadrangle maps that lacked current trail locations and often required mosaicking to be useful. Online trail guides with decent maps can be printed and carried, often with GPS coordinates that can be used with many devices. In short, it has never been easier to know where you are in the wilderness, and yet it seems more and more people are going in utterly ignorant of the terrain, the trails, and the troubles that can ensue.

This has been a bit of a theme GG has noticed.  In the geoscience literature, it is expressed as increasingly poor citations to the literature despite tools making it much easier than years ago. Or the scientists publishing a paper every five days. You see stories of people blindly following a GPS onto bike paths or into blizzards. The belief that your Google searches are superior to an expert’s training and experience seems to be related. The quest for views and likes encourages outrageousness and stupidity rather than study and subtlety. Basically, lazy slap-dash work is rewarded equally to careful and complete work, or at least it isn’t so punished as to make it unrewarding. So we have people wandering in the hills who are rescued by the few who know what they are doing, or those who answer 911 cell calls, or search and rescue teams. We have papers submitted where the authors say “oh, that will get caught in review, we don’t need to worry about it.” We have kids who aren’t inoculated who get protected by herd immunity, people diagnosing and treating their maladies from the internet, we have interlopers generating misleading materials to tilt elections.

How much of this is cause and effect? Are we just all getting stupider for no reason, or are these amazing aids crutches that atrophy the intellect? When you have a voice telling you where to turn, what happens to your spatial awareness? When every trivial fact is a click away on your smartphone, why retain any knowledge at all? When opinions that reinforce your beliefs are all around you, why bother to challenge them?

GG isn’t sure.  But he thinks maybe we should make sure cell signals don’t go into Wilderness and sat phones carry a minimum fee of $1000 per call.  Maybe then the benefit of preparedness will outweigh the cost of ignorance enough to start getting folks to anticipate disaster instead of merely survive it.

Recreation vs. Re-creation

GG has from time to time wandered on a bit about some of the contradictions surrounding public lands (as a geoscientist, GG has spent a fair bit of time on said lands). So three articles in the latest issue of High Country News (their “Outdoors and travel special issue”) caught his eye as they threw light on three different aspects of our varying and changing views of wild lands. In a sense, all three pieces reflect views that would probably have distressed John Muir and other 19th century celebrators of the wild.

The first (and cover) story documents the growing disconnect between realities: that on the ground, and those developed in social media. The story recounts the five 2017 deaths on Capitol Peak in the Colorado Rockies, focusing on one in particular where the temptation from social media wore down any resistance to doing something very risky. In a real sense, this documents the continuing replacement of wilderness as a place for reflection and understanding of our place in the big wide world with a handy backdrop for our social media musings. This has made the great outdoors nothing more than a different edgy stage for our narcissistic self-promotion (“Look at what I did!”). Unfortunately the real world has taken little notice, and so bad injuries and deaths can pile up as the temptation of one-upmanship continues.  Although the piece lays the blame on our obsession with social media, it is worth pointing out that this has gone on far longer.  Once cell phones started getting signals in wilderness areas, people would just assume they could march out and get into any fix they liked and they would be rescued.

The second deals with another aspect of the wilderness as personal gym mentality, suggesting that outdoor equipment companies might not have the best interests of the land in mind when they advocate for preserving landscapes.  In particular, the author, Ethan Linck, points out that these companies are far more interested in saving places with dramatic and photogenic places than ecologically more valuable lands. He buttresses this with some insights from research showing that outdoor recreating is only weakly related to broader environmental concerns. Thus people who recreate outdoors can be passionate about preserving access to the lands they use but are far less likely to care about other places and other threats. The author goes on to note how older distinctions between consumptive and appreciative uses of wild lands are increasingly confused. The result is something of a fraying of the coalitions that advocated for Wilderness Areas over the past 50 years; deferring to corporations to take up the slack might not be the best way to preserve what should be preserved. At the same time, the way companies glorify wild lands in advertisements acts in a way similar to social media trivialization of these places.

The last is more of a current news item: legislation in Congress would remove restrictions on bikes in Wilderness Areas (along with motorized wheelchairs and a few other wheeled vehicles). This bill splinters the mountain biking community: the Sustainable Trails Coalition supports the bill while the International Mountain Biking Association opposes it. This is again moving to further trivialize the wild, to say it is really only useful as a free gym.  While there are legitimate complaints from the biking community about how some Wilderness areas are drawn, there are some good reasons for excluding bikes from Wilderness.

All three stories point to nature becoming little more than a scenic backdrop for feats of derring-do, for getting pumped up, for setting records and personal bests.  And if that is all we want, that is all we’ll save, and we’ll lose a lot more than we’ll know.

(Updated on 5/15 with links to the HCN stories now online)

Just Hear “No”

Every now and then the amusing politics of Boulder provides a real reflection of problems at a broader scale. And while the continued principled posturing can get a geophysicist grumpy, there is a lesson in here somewhere.

Boulder, you see, has purchased a lot of open space land. It makes the town a wonderful place to live, but somebody has to set the rules on this land.  Sitting as we do at the base of the Rocky Mountains, at an ecotone between the plains and the mountains, there is real ecological value to much of this land. A considerable amount of the conserved land is agricultural and has been for about 150 years. A fit and outdoorsy population over a quarter million strong in the county wants to recreate on these lands. Balancing these demands is not easy.

What we see are special interest groups that coalesce around specific aspects of open space management.  Mind, all agree that open space is good, but they are fierce adversaries in how the land is used. Dog lovers have a group dedicated to making as many trails as possible open to dog use. Mountain bikers have their own lobbying group dedicated to opening as many trails as possible to bikes. Climbers too will weigh in for access to their special sites. Conservationists lobby to preserve as broad an ecology as possible. Prairie dog advocates seek ever more ground for prairie dogs while agricultural tenants demand their removal.

Three things stand out.  One, obviously nobody will win everything. And two, all these groups feel put-upon. Thus three, the folks making and enforcing the rules are pretty much vilified from all sides.

The funny thing is that most folks in Boulder are in many–or even all–camps. Riding a mountain bike, walking a dog, admiring the wildlife–lots of Boulderites do all of these things. So we aren’t even talking about shades of gray–we are talking about tints of brown from mixing all these paints together just a bit differently. And yet the advocacy groups often use exaggerated language and promises of the end of all that is good on open space if trail XX is not opened or closed to some use. At times it is like watching a bunch of 2 year olds fight over a toy.

So here is where we need to recall a lesson we should have gotten as children: play nice and we all will enjoy our time together; play selfish and nobody has fun. The strategy of exaggeration and vilification may seem effective in the short run, but it is corrosive in the long run. It leads to dog haters putting out poisoned bait, the dog lovers letting Rover roam where sensitive nesting grounds are, to mountains bikers cutting illegal trails in the foothills–all of which have happened here in Boulder. It is time to accept that when society says “no” it means “no.” You don’t make the rules on your own; you have to engage the body public. And this means you need to accept compromise–you have to respect the “no” you disagree with.

The good news from Boulder is that compromise happens.  While every group can lament a loss, they can also tout a gain. Sometimes the compromises are more clever than you might anticipate: a trail that is open to bikes some days and not others. Or a place where dogs can be walked on leash but not to roam free. Sometimes they can be surprisingly strict: there are areas where you are not allowed to walk at all. But they might be balanced by other areas where you and your bike and your dog can prance about at will.

The key to successful compromise is accepting the things you cannot do.  Fail in that and you are no longer credible as a negotiating partner.  And this is the risk of all who promote absolutism in the pursuit of their goals (and it is easy to think of national examples of the same). If you can’t accept “no” for an answer, don’t expect anybody to want to play with you–or let you play on our land.

Wilderness Learning, Conclusion

Long ago I argued that legislating Wilderness represented a coalition of interests wanting lands to remain undeveloped along with a self-deception of how little humans had affected those lands. From the scientific side, capital-W Wilderness needs some serious rethinking.  The ecological fantasy of wilderness I’ve discussed a few times cannot be the rational basis for setting lands aside. In this set of posts, I’ve looked at this from a far more personal angle, one perhaps more congruent with the real motivations of the Wilderness Act: what is it about wilderness that we–human beings–really care about? Why is the illusion of untamed nature so alluring? For wilderness, both with and without the capital W, is a human construct (indeed, it is mainly a Western concept if not almost uniquely American). Without understanding what sets wilderness apart from other experiences from a human perspective, we can’t really have a good discussion about what should and shouldn’t be in Wilderness. While my experiences are unusual if not unique, I think the lessons that can be drawn from them might be more general.

I would first exclude as a justification for Wilderness a very common use of Wilderness: that of outdoor gym. A place to set a personal best in running a trail or climbing a peak doesn’t need to be Wilderness. Maybe Wilderness can accommodate that (to some degree: I think we’d all agree that running a race the size of the Boston Marathon through Wilderness would be a disaster), but that isn’t the experience that defines wilderness.

Oddly enough, I’m not sure that communing with nature makes the cut either.  Despite coal-fired railroad engines belching past the far side of Walden Pond, Thoreau could commune with nature well enough to inspire generations following him. Similarly, although Wilderness unquestionably acts as a valuable reservoir of natural genomes, we don’t select it for that, and other undeveloped lands and even some developed lands can provide that service, too.

I tend to object to postage stamp size Wilderness areas. Unless surrounded by unroaded areas or utterly lacking in trails and access, civilization is just too handy.  While protecting such lands often has real value, the label should probably be different.  “Natural Area,” “Wildlife Preserve,” or even “Scenic Reserve” might be more appropriate.

When I look back at my experiences, it is the isolation from ready rescue, from easy extraction and convenient resupply that separates wilderness from tamer lands. It is the immersion in that experience as well. Your nose is rubbed in your mistakes–you can die, in fact–and similarly your successes in extricating yourself belong to you and not the auto club or the 7-11 down the street. Your clever trick in hanging food from bears, or making a campfire with a single match, or setting up a tent in a pouring rain without getting the inside wet–these are minor accomplishments, true, but they are often personal successes unsullied by advice from the broader world. We all are cheered by our little victories.

There are places on the earth where similar experiences can be had with motorized transport (people die driving off into the deserts of North Africa and Australia, for instance), but those require huge expanses of unoccupied land. To have the same effect in the U.S., you need to be able to go far enough that you can’t trivially retreat or yell for rescue. The easier transport allowed in, the tougher it is to meet this demand.  This is, to my mind, the firmest argument against bicycles in the Wilderness: it makes the remote less remote. Remote too is a signal characteristic of wilderness.  I think this is also a good argument for not providing cell service in wilderness; we are increasingly reliant on quick Google searches or Wikipedia pages for knowledge, knowledge that evaporates the moment after we encounter it.  Wilderness is to deeply understand things. Satellite rescue beacons are fine, I suppose: they are confessions of failure or encounters with profound misfortune, often in dire circumstance [when used outside of dire circumstance, as has happened, it is a confession of a different kind of failure]. It is the substitution of the global hive mind for individual problem-wrestling that I resist. We’ve shown that if we can access that hive mind through the internet, we will do that before switching on our own white matter. Wilderness, to me, is a place where you learn what you are capable of. It is certainly not the only such place, but it has its own special circumstance.

Undiluted, consequential self-reliance lasting a decent duration might be the essence of the human experience in wilderness. I don’t mean that you walk naked into the wild and try to survive (though some might choose that option). I mean your problems are your own.  Immersion in that environment heightens recognition of that responsibility, which in turn helps to enhance your perception of your surroundings.  When we first camped and feared bears, the crinkle of the tube tents brought our attention to what we could hear, and see, and smell.

You never know the challenges you might face.  When we removed our seismometers in the autumn of 1988 from the Kern backcountry, two of us hiked in and packed everything and placed the boxes by the trail garlanded with neon orange flagging. Half Pint was chosen to take a pack string in and get everything out (and he was given pretty clear instructions on where that cabin up the Big Arroyo was). He managed to visit all six sites and get the gear on his mules.  But when the return trail started rising up from the Little Kern River, he got bucked off his horse. But he held on to his mule string, and while the horse taunted him by staying just out of reach, HP had to walk along, leading his mules. Nothing pains a cowboy more than walking after being unhorsed, but getting the gear back was his responsibility; his challenge that day, that only he could meet, was to keep hold of the mules and plod up to the pack station, following his horse. I rather suspect HP picked up a few lessons that summer.

Any of you who have read this probably have your own views. Everybody probably takes something different from their wilderness experiences. Just ask, as I have tried to in these posts, what was it about wilderness that was different from what you experience outside wilderness, in particular what specifically makes the difference worth elevating those lands above others. If you can do that, boil that insight down to its essence, and then use it as a guide for what should and should not be Wilderness, then at least any subsequent conflicts over Wilderness will at least be over essentials and not perceptions or proxies. And if, somehow, you have not been in wilderness for any length of time, I hope this helps explain why many who have been there want to keep it–even understanding that it is fantasy that these lands are untouched by humanity.

Previous entries: Lesson 1, Lesson 2aLesson 2b, Lesson 3Lesson 4.